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Separation Anxiety

A sign reads "No to centralization" during a protest at Martyr Square against federalism
A sign reads "No to centralization" during a protest at Martyr Square against federalism
A sign reads "No to centralization" during a protest against federalism at Martyr Square

This last week the ongoing instability in Libya reached new heights. After months of violence between militias and tribes from different regions, the oil-rich region of Eastern Libya, formerly known as Cyrenaica, declared itself a semi-autonomous state. Four thousand people, including tribal elders, gathered in the outskirts of Benghazi to declare their partial independence and the creation of the “interim council of Cyrenaica”

Supporters of the establishment of federalism in the east of the country have taken advantage of the slow pace of change, and claims that the transitional government is not sufficiently representative of the to push for a new governmental structure. One major point of concern is that while the revolution began and was spearheaded by the East, the region has only been given 60 of the 200 seats available in the June e lections.

For years, Eastern Libya has felt marginalized by the way in which the former government allocated resources to the region. Though Cyrenaica is the source of most of Libya’s oil and consequently the country’s wealth, with oil comprising close to 70 percent of the country’s GDP- the former government focused development strategies in the west of the country.

However, not everyone in Eastern Libya feels that federalism is the solution to the region’s historic marginalization.  In fact, a number of protests against the declaration of semi-autonomy have occurred.

The controversy surrounding the declaration stems from fears that semi-autonomy will eventually lead to the fragmentation of Libya. There are also concerns that a move towards federalism will hamper reconciliation efforts. Libya, a tribal country, has seen an exacerbation of regional tension during the conflict, with certain regions claiming others were (or remain) supporters of the former government.  That the region is oil rich has also created the possibility of a resource war, with some comparing the situation to the conflict between Sudan and South Sudan.  a number of protests against the declaration of semi-autonomy have occurred

Senior officials of the National Transitional Council, though opposed to the move, appear paralyzed with little options available to them should Cyrenaica choose to proceed with decentralization. More problematically, the declaration of semi-autonomy has highlighted a number of limitations experienced by the government. For instance, the head of the NTC, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, has in the course of two days threatened to attack the region and use force to keep the country united, and confessed that the interim government does not have the sufficient manpower or control over militias to put that strategy into effect. Such contradictions, unfortunately, put into question the authority of the government and render the likelihood of the country’s fragmentation greater.





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Paula Mejia
Paula Mejia is a contributing writer for The Majalla. As a freelance journalist and former consultant for the African Development Bank, her work has focused on the economic and social challenges in Africa, with a special focus on Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. She is a graduate of the London School of Economics, L’Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris (Science Po) and the University of Chicago.


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